THE SHIELD OF SILENCE
BY HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
AUTHOR OF JOYCE OF THE NORTH WOODS, ETC.
FRONTISPIECE BY GEORGE LOUGHRIDGE
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
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COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
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TO MY SON PHILIP S. COMSTOCK
"We will grasp the hands of men and women; and slowly holding one another's hands we will work our way upwards."
* * * * *
THE SHIELD OF SILENCE
Let us agree at once that—
We are all on the Wheel. The difference lies in our ability to cling or let go. Meredith Thornton and old Becky Adams—let go!
Across the world's heart they fell—the heart of the world may be wide or narrow—and, by the law of attraction, they came to Ridge House and Sister Angela.
Unlike, and separated by every circumstance that, according to the expected, should have kept them apart—they still had the same problem to confront and the solution had its beginning in that pleasant home for Episcopal Sisters which clings so enchantingly along the north side of what is known as Silver Gap, a cleft in the Southern mountains.
To say the solution of these women's problems had its beginnings in Ridge House is true; but that they were ever solved is another matter and this story deals with that.
Meredith Thornton was young and beautiful. Up to the hour that she let go she had lived as they live who are drugged. She had looked on life with her senses blurred and her actions largely controlled by others.
Old Becky, on the other hand, had gripped life with no uncertain hold; she, according to the vernacular of her hills, "had the call to larn," and she learned deeply.
Sister Angela had clung to the Wheel. She had swung well around the circle and she believed she was nearing the end when the strange demand was made upon her.
The demand was made by Meredith Thornton and Becky Adams. Meredith, from her great distance, somewhat prepared Sister Angela by a letter, but Becky, being unable either to read or write, simply took to the trail from her lonely cabin on Thunder Peak and claimed a promise made three years before.
And now, since The Rock played a definite part in what happened, it should have a word here.
In a land where nearly all the solid substance is rock—not stone, mind you—The Rock held a peculiar position. It dominated the landscape and the imagination of Silver Gap, and the superstition as well. It was a huge, greenish-white mass, a mile to the east of Thunder Peak, and over its smooth face innumerable waterfalls trickled and shone. With this colour and motion, like a mighty Artist, the wind and light played, forming pictures that needed little fancy to discern.
At times cities would be delicately outlined with towers and roofs rising loftily; then again one might see a deep wood with a road winding far and away, luring home-tied feet to wander. And sometimes—not often, to be sure—the Ship would ride at anchor as on a painted sea.
The Ship boded no good to Silver Gap as any one could tell. It had brought the plague and the flood; it brought bad crops and raids on hidden stills; it waited until its evil cargo had done its worst and then it sailed away in the night, bearing its pitiful load of dead, or its burden of fear and hate. Surely there was good and sufficient reason for dreading the appearance of The Ship, and on a certain autumn morning it appeared and soon after the two women, unknown to each other, came to Ridge House and this story began.
"Wait and thy soul shall speak."
There is, in the human soul, as in the depths of the ocean, a state of eternal calm. Around it the waves of unrest may surge and roar but there peace reigns. In that sanctuary the tides are born and, in their appointed time, swelling and rising, they carry the poor jetsam and flotsam of life before them.
The tide was rising in the soul of Meredith Thornton; she was awake at last. Awake as people are who have lived with their faculties drugged. The condition was partly due to the education and training of the woman, and largely to her own ability in the past to close her senses to any conception of life that differed from her desires. She had always been like that. She loved beauty and music; she loved goodness and happiness; she loved them whom she loved so well that she shut all others out. Consequently, when Life tore her defences away she had no guidance upon which to depend but that which had lain hidden in the secret place of her soul.
As a little child Meredith and her older sister, Doris, lived in New York. Their house had been in the Fletcher family for three generations and stood at the end of a dignified row, opposite a park whose iron gates opened only to those considered worthy of owning a key—the Fletchers had a key!
In the park the little Fletcher girls played—if one could call it play—under the eye of a carefully selected maid whose glance was expected to rest constantly upon them. The anxious father tried to do his double duty conscientiously, for the mother had died at Meredith's birth.
The children often peered through the high fence (it really was more fun than the stupid games directed by their elders) and wondered—at least Doris wondered; Meredith was either amused or shocked; if the latter it was an easy matter to turn aside. This hurt Doris, and to her plea that the thing was there, Meredith returned that she did not believe it, and she did not, either.
Once, shielded by the skirts of an outgoing maid, Doris made her escape and, for two thrilling and enlightening hours, revelled in the company of the Great Unknown who were not deemed worthy of keys.
Doris had found them vital, absorbing, and human; they changed the whole current of her life and thought; she was never the same again, neither was anything else.
The nurse was at once dismissed and Mr. Fletcher placed his daughters in the care of Sister Angela, who was then at the head of a fashionable school for girls—St. Mary's, it was called.
Sister Angela believed in keys but had ideas as to their uses and the good sense to keep them out of sight.
Under her wise and loving rule Doris Fletcher never suspected the hold upon her and, while she did not forget the experience she had once had outside the park, she no longer yearned to repeat it, for the present was wholesomely full. As for Meredith, she felt that all danger was removed—for Doris; for herself, what could shatter her joy? It was only running outside gates that brought trouble.
Just after the Fletcher girls graduated from St. Mary's Sister Angela's health failed.
Mr. Fletcher at this time proved his gratitude and affection in a delicate and understanding way. He bought a neglected estate in the South and provided a sufficient sum of money for its restoration and upkeep, and this he put in Sister Angela's care.
"There is need of such work as you can do there," he said; "and it has always been a dream of my life to help those people of the hills. Sister, make my dream come true."
Angela at once got in touch with Father Noble, who was winning his way against great odds in the country surrounding Silver Gap, and offered her services.
"Come and live here," Father Noble replied. "It is all we can do at present. They do not want us," he had a quaint humour, "but we must change that."
Mr. Fletcher did not live long enough to see his dream do more than help prolong Sister Angela's days, for he died a year later leaving, to his daughters, a large fortune, well invested, and no commands as to its use. This faith touched both girls deeply.
"I want to travel and see all the beautiful things in the world," Meredith said when the time for expression came.
"Yes, dear," Doris replied, "and you must learn what life really means."
Naturally at this critical moment both girls turned to Sister Angela, but with the rare insight that had not deserted her, she held them from her, though her heart hungered for them.
"Ridge House is in the making," she wrote. "I am going slow, making no mistakes. I am asking some Sisters who, like me, have fallen by the way, to come here and help me with my scheme, and in the confusion of readjustment, two young girls, who ought to be forming their own plans, would be sadly in the way.
"Go abroad, my dears, take"—here Sister Angela named a woman she could trust to help, not hinder—"and learn to walk alone at last."
Doris accepted the advice and the little party went to Italy.
"Here," she said, "Merry shall have the beauty she craves and she shall learn what life means, as well."
And Meredith's learning began.
They had only been in Italy a month when George Thornton appeared. He was young, handsome, and already so successful in business that older men cast approving eyes upon him. He had chosen, at the outset of his career, to go to the Philippines and accepted an appointment there. He had devoted himself so rigidly to his duties that his health began to show the strain and he was taking his first, well-won, vacation when he met the Fletchers.
Thornton's past had been spent largely with men who, like himself, were making their way among people, and in an environment in which the finer aspects of life were disregarded. He had enjoyed himself, made himself popular, and for the rest he had waited until such a time as his success would make choice possible. When he met Meredith Fletcher he felt the time had come. The girl's exquisite aloofness, her fineness and sweetness, bewitched him. The real meaning of her character did not interest him at all. Here was something that he wanted; the rest would be an easy conquest. Thornton had always got what he wanted and lay siege to Meredith's heart at once.
His approach, while it swept Meredith before it, naturally aroused fear and apprehension in Doris. To Meredith, Thornton was an ideal materialized; to Doris, he was a menace to all that she held sacred. She distrusted him for the very traits that appealed to her sister. But she dared not oppose, for to every inquiry she hurriedly made—and there was need of hurry—she received only favourable reports.
Thornton's own fortune and prospects set aside any fears as to mercenary designs; he had no near relatives, but distant cousins in England were people of refinement and culture and on excellent terms with Thornton. Breathlessly Thornton carried everything before him. Six weeks after he met Meredith he married her.
"Why, you do not know the child," Doris had faltered when the hasty marriage was proposed, "I'm only learning to know her myself. She has never grown up. She sees life as she used to see it through the gates of the park in which she played as a little girl. She has been locked away. It is appalling. I could not believe, unless I knew, that any one could be like Merry."
Of course Thornton did not understand.
"Let me have the key," he jokingly said, "let me lead Merry out. It will be the biggest thing of my life."
And Doris knew that unless the key were given he would break the lock, so Meredith was married in the little American chapel on the hillside and she looked as if she were walking in a love-filled dream as she went out of Doris's life.
Thornton took his wife to the Philippines by way of her New York home. For a week they stayed in it, and it was there that the first sense of loss touched Meredith. The stirring effect of all that she had recently gone through was wearing away, and Doris, and all that Doris meant in the past, haunted the big, quiet house.
"This will never do," thought Thornton, and for the first time he sensed the power the older sister had over the younger. It was already making its way into his kingdom, and Thornton never shared what was his own!
Doris remained abroad for a time, readjusting her life as one does who is maimed. Her devotion to Meredith, she saw now, had been her one passion—to what could she turn?
The letters that presently came from Meredith, while they set much of her fear at rest, made her feel more lonely, nor did they seem to set her free to make permanent plans. She sank into a waiting mood—waiting for letters!
"I'll play around Europe for awhile," she whimsically decided. "I'll buy things for that chapel Sister Angela is planning, and polish my manners. And," here Doris grew grave, "I'll think of David Martin! I wish I could love Davey enough to marry him as I feel he wants me to—and let him blot out this ache for Merry." But that was not to be.
And Meredith wrote her letters to her sister and smiled upon her husband—for after the third month of her marriage that was the best she could do for either of them. All the ideals of her self-blinded life were being swept away in the glaring flame of reality.
Thornton was still infatuated and went to great lengths to prove to his pale, starry-eyed wife her power over him. He was delighted at the impression she made upon the rather hectic but exclusive circle in which he moved; but he dreaded, vaguely to be sure, her hearing, in a gross way, references to his life before she entered it. So quite frankly and a bit sketchily he confided it to her himself.
"Of course that is ended forever," he said; "you have led me from darkness to light, you wonderful child! Why, Merry, you simply have made a new and better man of me—I understand the real value of things now."
But did he?
Merry was looking at him as if she were doubting her senses. Things she had heard in her girlhood, things that floated about in the dark corners of her memory, were pressing close. Dreadful things that had been forced upon her against her will but which she reasoned could never happen to her, or to any of her own.
"You mean," she faltered gropingly at last, "that another woman has——" She could not voice the ugly words and Thornton was obliged to be a little more explicit.
Then he saw his wife retreat—spiritually. He hastened after her as best he could.
"You see, darling," he was frightened, "out here, where a fellow is cut off from home ties and all that, the old code does not hold—how could it? I'm no exception. Why, good Lord! child——" but Meredith was not listening. He saw that and it angered him.
She was hearing words spoken long ago—oh! years and years ago it seemed. Words that had lured her from Doris, from safety, from all the dangerous peace that had been hers.
"Sweetheart," that voice had said, "there is one right woman for every man, but few there be who find her. When one does—then there is no time to be lost. Life is all too short at the best for them. Come, my beloved, come!"
And she had heeded and, forsaking all else, had trusted him.
According to his lights Thornton had sincerely meant those words when he spoke them. He was under the spell, still, as he looked at the small frozen thing before him now.
If he could win her from her absurd, and almost unbelievable, position; if he could, through her love and his, gain her absolutely; make her his—what a conquest!
"My precious one, I am yours to do with what you will!" he was saying with all the fervour of his being; but Meredith looked at him from a great distance.
"You were never mine!" was what she said. Then asked:
"Is that—that woman here? Will I ever—meet her?"
Thornton was growing furiously angry.
"Certainly not!" he replied to her last question, incensed at the implied lack of delicacy on his part. Then he added, "Don't be a fool, Merry!"
"No, I won't," she whispered, grimly. "I won't be a fool, whatever else I am. Do you want me to leave you at once, or stay on?"
Thornton stared at her blankly.
"Good God!" he muttered; "what do you mean, stay on?"
"I mean that if I stay it will be because I don't want to hurt you more than I must—and because things don't matter much, either way. I have my own money—but, well, I'll stay on if it will help you in your business."
Then light dawned.
"You will stay on!" Thornton snapped the words out. "You are my wife, and you will stay on!"
"Very well. I will stay," Meredith turned and walked away.
Thornton looked after her and his face softened. Something in him was touched by the spirit under the cold, crude exterior of the girl. It was worth while—he would try to win her!
And that was the best hour in Thornton's life.
Could he have held to it all might have gone well, but Thornton's successes had been due to dash and daring—the slow, patient method was not his, and against his wife's stern indifference he recoiled after a short time—she bored him; she no longer seemed worth while; not worth the struggle nor the holding to absurd and rigid demands. Still, by her smiling acquiescence, Meredith made things possible that otherwise might not have been so, and she was a charming hostess when occasion demanded.
During the second bleak year of their marriage Meredith accompanied Thornton to England—he was often obliged to go there on prolonged business—but she never repeated the experiment.
While it was comparatively easy to play her difficult role in her home, it was unbearable among her husband's people, who complicated matters by assuming that she must, of necessity, be honoured and uplifted by the alliance she had made.
After the return from England Thornton abandoned his puritanical life and returned to the easy ways of his bachelor days.
Meredith knew perfectly well what was going on, but she had her own income and lived her own detached and barren life, so she clung to what seemed to her the last shred of duty she owed to her marriage ties—she served in her husband's home as hostess, and by her mere presence she avoided betraying him to the scorn of those who could not know all, and so might not judge justly.
Then the crisis came that shocked Meredith into consciousness and forced her to act, for the first time in her life, independently.
Thornton was about to go, again, to England. The day before he sailed he came into his wife's sitting room, where she lay upon a couch, suffering from a severe headache.
She never mentioned her pain or loneliness, and to Thornton's careless glance she appeared as she always did—pale, cold, and self-centred.
"Well, I sail at noon to-morrow!" he said, seating himself astride a chair, folding his arms and settling his chin on them.
"Yes? Is there anything particular that you want me to look after in your absence?"
Meredith barely raised her eyes. Her pain was intense, but Thornton saw only indifference and an unconscious insolence in the words, tone, and languid glance.
Never before in his life had he been balked and defied and resented as he was by the pretty creature before him. The devil rose in him—and generally Thornton rode his devil with courage and control, but suddenly it reared, and he was thrown!
"Do you know," he said—and he looked handsome and powerful in his white clothes; he was splendidly correct in every detail—"there are times when I think you forget that you are my wife."
"I try to." Like all quiet people Meredith could shatter one's poise at times by her daring. She looked so small and defiant as she lay there—so secure!
"Suppose I commanded you to come with me to-morrow? Made my rightful demand after this hellish year—what would you do?"
Thornton's chin projected; his mouth smiled, not pleasantly, and his eyes held Meredith's with a light that frightened her. She sat up.
"Of course I should refuse to go with you," she replied, "and I do not acknowledge any rights of yours except those that I give you. You apparently overlook the fact that—I make no claims."
"Claims?" Thornton laughed, and the sound had a dangerous note that startled Meredith. "Claims? Good Lord! That's quaintly delicious. You don't know men, my dear. It would be a deed of charity to—inform you. Claims, indeed! You drove me, when you might have held me, and you talk claims."
"I did not want to hold you—after I knew that you had never really been mine." Meredith's words were shaken by an emotion beyond Thornton's comprehension; they further aroused the brute in him.
"This comes of locks and bars!" he sneered, recalling Doris's expression, "but, damn it all, unless you were more fool than most girls you might have saved yourself."
To this Meredith made no reply, but she crouched on the couch and gathered her knees in her arms as if clinging to the only support at her disposal.
"See here!" Thornton bent forward and his eyes blazed. "I'm going to give you a last chance. You'll come with me to-morrow and have done with this infernal rot or I'll take the woman with me who has made life possible, in the past, for you and me. What do you say?"
Horror and repulsion grew in Meredith's eyes. She went deadly white and stretched her hands wide as if shielding herself from something defiling.
"Go!" she gasped. "Go with her! By so doing I will not have to explain; I will be free to return—to Doris."
"So!" And now Thornton got up and paced the floor; "having foresworn every duty you owe me, having driven me to what you choose to call wrong, you pack your nice, clean little soul in your bag and go back to pose as—as—what in God's name will you pose as? You!"
Meredith shrank back. She was conscious now of her danger.
"Well, then!" Thornton came close and laughed down upon the shrinking form—her terror further roused the brute in him; all that was decent and fine in him—and both were there—fell into darkness; "you'll pay, by heaven! before you go. You'll—"
"Leave me alone!" Meredith sprang to her feet. "How dare you?"
And again Thornton laughed.
"Dare? You—you little idiot! You'll come with me to-morrow—by God!"
* * * * *
But Meredith did not go with Thornton on the morrow, and if the other took her place she did not seek to know.
The weeks and months dragged on and she was thankful for time to think and plot. It took so much time for one who had never acted before. And then—she knew the worst!
Thornton might return at any time and soon—her child would be born! First terror, then a growing calmness, possessed Meredith. She forgot Thornton in her planning, forgot her own misery and sense of wrong. She did not hate her child as she might have—she learned in the end to consider it as the one opportunity left to her of saving whatever was good in her and Thornton. She clung to that good, she was just, at last, to Thornton as well as herself. Both he and she were victims of ignorance—the little coming child must be saved from that ignorance; the father's and—yes, her own, for Meredith was convinced that she would not live through her ordeal.
Thornton must not have the child—he was unfit for that sacred duty of giving it the chance that had been denied the parents. The new life must have its roots in cleaner and purer soil. Doris must save it. Doris!
Then Meredith wrote three notes. One was to Sister Angela:
You remember how, as a little girl, you let me come to you and tell you things that I could not tell even to God? I am coming now, Sister—will be there soon after this reaches you; and then—I will tell you!
I want my child to be born with you and Doris near me. I have written to Doris.
And whether I live or die, my husband must not have my child. You must help me.
The second letter was longer, for it contained explanations and reasons. These were stated baldly, briefly, but for that very quality they rang luridly dramatic.
The third note was left on Thornton's desk and simply informed him that she was going to Doris and would never return.
"Minds that sway the future like a tide."
Sister Angela read her letter sitting before the fire in the living room at Ridge House.
She read it over and over and then, as was common with her, she clasped the cross that hung from her girdle—and opened her soul. She called it prayer. Meredith became personally near her—the written words had materialized her. With the clairvoyance that had been part of her equipment in dealing with people and events of the past, Angela began slowly to understand.
So actually was she possessed by reality that her face grew grim and deadly pale. She was a woman of experience in the worldly sense, but she was unyielding in her spiritual interpretation of moral codes. She felt the full weight of the tragedy that had overwhelmed a girl of Meredith Thornton's type. She had no inclination, nor was there time now, to consider Thornton's side of this terrible condition. She must act for Meredith and Meredith's child.
Folding the letter, she dropped it into her pocket and sent for Sister Janice, the housekeeper.
Angela gave silent thanks for Janice's temperament.
Janice was so cheerful as often to depress others; so grateful that she gloried in self-abnegation and had no curiosity outside a given command.
"The house must be got ready for visitors," Angela informed Janice. "Two former pupils—and one of them is ill." When she said this Angela paused. How did she know Meredith was ill?
"Shall I open the west wing?" asked Janice, alert as to her duties.
"Open everything. Have the place at its best; but I would like the younger sister, Mrs. Thornton, to have the chamber on the south, the guest chamber."
When Janice had departed, Sister Constance appeared.
In her early days Constance had been a famous nurse and for years afterward the head of a school for nurses. Her eyes brightened now as she listened to her superior. She had long chafed under the strain of inaction. She listened and nodded.
"Everything shall be done as you wish, Sister," she said at last, and Angela knew that it would be.
Lastly, old Jed was called from his outside duties and stood, battered hat in hand, to receive his commands. Jed was old and black and his wool was white as snow; his strong, perfect teeth glittered with gold fillings. How the old man had fallen to this vanity no one knew, but sooner or later all the money he made was converted into fillings.
"They do say," he once explained to Sister Angela, "that 'tain't all gold as glitters, but dis year yaller in my mouth, ma'am, is right sure gold an' it's like layin' up treasure in heaven, for no moth nor rust ain't ever going to distroy anythin' in my mouth. No, ma'am! No corruption, nuther."
Jed, listening to Sister Angela, now, was beaming and shining.
"I want you to go to Stone Hedgeton to-morrow, Uncle Jed. You better start early. You must meet every train until you see a young lady—she will be looking about for someone—and bring her here. In between trains make yourself and the horses comfortable at the tavern. I'm glad you do not drink, Jed."
"Yes-m," pondered Jed, "but I 'spect there might be mo' dan one young lady. I reckon it would be disastering if I fotched the wrong one. Isn't thar something 'bout her discounterments as might be leading, as yo' might say, ma'am?"
"Jed, I rely upon you to bring the right young lady!"
There was no use of further arguing. Jed shuffled off.
Alone, of all the household, little Mary Allan was not taken into Sister Angela's confidence, and this was unfortunate, for Mary ran well in harness, but was apt to go a bit wild if left to her own devices. What people did not confide to Mary she generally found out for herself.
Mary was known to Silver Gap as the "last of them Allans." Her father and mother both died soon after Mary showed signs of persisting—her ten brothers and sisters had refused to live, and when Mary was left to her fate Sister Angela rescued her, and the girl had been trained for entrance into a Sisterhood later on.
She was abnormally keen but discouragingly superstitious; she had moods when the Sisters believed they had overcome her inheritance of reticence and aloofness. She would laugh and chat gaily and appear charmingly young and happy, but without warning she would lapse back to the almost sullen, suspicious attitude that was so disconcerting. Sister Angela demanded justice for Mary and received, in return, a kind of loyalty that was the best the girl had to give.
She regarded, with that strange interpretation of the lonely hills, all outsiders as foreigners. She was receiving benefits from them, her only chance of life, and while she blindly repaid in services, Mary's roots clung to the cabin life; her affections to the fast-decaying hovel from which she had been rescued.
Jed was the only familiar creature left to Mary's inner consciousness. He belonged to the hills—if not of them, and while his birthright made it possible for him to assimilate, he shared with Mary the feeling that he was among strangers.
Jed thought in strains of "quality"; Mary in terms of "outlanders." But both served loyally.
The morning that Jed was to start on his mysterious errand—and he gloried in the mystery—Mary was "minding" bread in the kitchen and "chuncking" wood in the stove with a lavish hand. The Sisters were at prayer in the tiny chapel which had been evolved from a small west room; and old Aunt Becky Adams was plodding down the rugged trail from Thunder Peak. Meredith Thornton, too, was nearing her destination and The Ship was on The Rock.
Presently Mary, having tested the state of the golden-brown ovals in the oven—and she could do it to a nicety—came out of the kitchen, followed by a delicious smell of crisping wheat, and sat down upon the step of the porch to watch Jed polishing the harness of Washington and Lincoln—the grave, reliable team upon whom Jed spared no toil.
Mary looked very brief and slim in her scanty blue cotton frock and the apron far too large for her. The hair, tidily caught in a firm little knot, was making brave efforts to escape in wild little curls, and the girl's big eyes had the expression seen in the eyes of an animal that has been trapped but not conquered.
"Uncle Jed," she said in an awed tone, and planting her sharp elbows on her knees in order to prop her serious face, "The Ship is on The Rock."
All the morning Jed had been trying to keep his back to the fact.
"Yo' sure is one triflin' child," he muttered.
"All the same, The Ship is there, Uncle Jed, and that means that something is going to happen. It is going to happen long o' Ridge House—and nothing has happened here before. Things have just gone on—and—on and on——"
The girl's voice trailed vaguely—she was looking at The Ship.
Jed began to have that sensation described by him as "shivers in the spine of his back." Mary was fascinating him. Suddenly she asked:
"Uncle Jed, what are they-all sending you to—fetch?" Mary almost said "fotch."
"How you know, child, I is goin' to fotch—anything?" Jed's spine was affecting his moral fibre.
Mary gave her elfish laugh. She rarely smiled, and her laugh was a mere sound—not harsh, but mirthless.
"I know!" she said, "and it came—no matter what it is on The Ship, and I 'low it will go—on The Ship."
"Gawd A'mighty!" Jed burst out, "you make me creep like I had pneumonia fever." With this Jed turned to The Rock and confronted The Ship.
"Gawd!" he murmured, "I sho' am anxious and trubbled."
Then he turned, mounted the step of the creaky carriage, and gave his whip that peculiar twist that only a born master of horses ever can.
It was like Jed to do that which he was ordained to do promptly.
Mary watched him out of sight and then went indoors. She was depressed and nervous; her keen ear had heard much not intended for her to hear, but not enough to control the imagination that was fired by superstition.
"A happening" was looming near. Something grave threatened. The evil crew of The Ship was but biding its time to strike, and Mary thrilled and feared at once.
The bread, as Mary sniffed, was ready to be taken from the oven. The first loaf was poised nicely on the girl's towel-covered hand when a dark, bent old woman drifted, rather than walked, into the sunny kitchen. She came noiselessly like a shadow; she was dirty and in rags; she looked, all but her eyes, as if she might be a hundred years old, but her eyes held so much fire and undying youth that they were terrible set in the crinkled, rust-coloured face.
"I want her!" The words, spoken close to her shoulder caused Mary to drop the loaf and turn in affright.
"Gawd! Aunt Becky!" gasped Mary, dropping, like a cloak, the thin veneer of all that Ridge House had done for her. "Gawd! Aunt Becky, I done thought you was—dead and all. I ain't seen you in ages. Won't you set?"
The woman stretched a claw-like hand forth and laid it on the shoulder of the girl.
"Don't you argify with me—Mary Allan. I want her."
There seemed to be no doubt in Mary's mind as to whom Aunt Becky wanted.
"Sister Angela is at prayer, Aunt Becky," she whispered, trying to escape from the clutch upon her shoulder.
"Mary Allan—go tell her I want her. Go!" There was that in Becky's tone that commanded obedience. Mary started to the hall, her feet clattering as she ran toward the chapel on the floor above.
Becky followed, more slowly. She got as far as the opened door of the living room, then she paused, glanced about, and went in.
There are some rooms that repel; others that seem to rush forward with warm welcome. The living room at Ridge House was one that made a stranger feel as if he had long been expected and desired. It was not unfamiliar to the old woman who now entered it. Through the windows she had often held silent and unsuspected vigil. It was her way to know the trails over which she might be called to travel and since that day, three years before, when Sister Angela had met her on the road and made her startling proposition, Becky had subconsciously known that, in due time, she would be compelled to accept what then she had so angrily refused.
On that first encounter Sister Angela had said:
"They tell me that you have a little granddaughter—a very pretty child."
"Yo' mean Zalie?" Becky was on her guard.
"I did not know her name. How old is she?"
"Nigh onter fifteen." The strange eyes were holding Sister Angela's calm gaze—the old woman was awaiting the time to spring.
"It is wrong to keep a young girl on that lonely peak away from everyone, as I am told that you do. Won't you let her come to Ridge House? We will teach her—fit her for some useful work."
Sister Angela at that time did not know her neighbours as well as she later learned to know them. Becky came nearer, and her thin lips curled back from her toothless jaws.
"You-all keep yo' hands off Zalie an' me! I kin larn my gal all she needs to know. All other larnin' would harm her, and no Popish folk ain't going to tech what's mine."
So that was what kept them apart!
Sister Angela drew back. For a moment she did not understand; then she smiled and bent nearer.
"You think us Catholics? We are not; but if we were it would be just the same. We are friendly women who really want to be neighbourly and helpful."
"You all tote a cross!" Becky was interested.
"Yes. We bear the cross—it is a symbol of what we try to do—you need not be afraid of us, and if there is ever a time when you need us—come to Ridge House."
After that Becky had apparently disappeared, but often and often when the night was stormy, or dark, she had walked stealthily down the trail and taken her place by the windows of Ridge House. She knew the sunny, orderly kitchen in which such strange food was prepared; she knew the long, narrow dining room with its quaint carvings and painted words on walls and fireplace; she knew the tiny room where the Sisters knelt and sang. One or two of the tunes ran in Becky's brain like haunting undercurrents; but best of all, Becky knew the living room upon whose generous hearth the fire burned from early autumn until the bloom of dogwood, azalea, and laurel filled the space from which the ashes were reluctantly swept. Every rug and chair and couch was familiar to the burning eyes. The rows of bookshelves, the long, narrow table and—The Picture on the Wall!
To that picture Becky went now. She had never been able to see it distinctly from any window. It was the Good Shepherd. The noble, patient face bent over the child on the man's breast had power to still Becky's distraught mind. She could not understand, but a groping of that part of her that could still feel and suffer reached the underlying suggestion of the artist. Here was someone who was doing what, in a vague and bungling way, Becky herself had always wanted to do—shield the young, helpless thing that belonged to her.
The old face twitched and the soiled, crinkled arms—so empty and yearning—hugged the trembling body. And so Sister Angela found her.
The three years since Angela had seen Becky Adams had taught her much of her people—she called them her people, now.
"I am so glad to see you, Aunt Becky," she said, smiling and pointing to a chair by the hearth, quite in an easy way. "Are you tired after your long walk?"
"Sorter." Becky came over to the chair and sank into it. Then she said abruptly: "Zalie's gone!"
The brief statement had power to visualize the young creature as Angela had once seen her: pretty as the flower whose name she bore, a little shy thing with hungry, half-afraid eyes.
"Is she—dead?" Sister Angela's gaze grew deep and sympathetic.
"Not 'zactly—not daid—jes now." Poor Becky, breaking through her own reserve and agony, made a pitiful appeal.
"She has—gone away? With whom?" Sister Angela began to comprehend and she lowered her voice, bending toward Becky.
"She ain't gone with any one—she didn't have ter—but she'll fotch up with someone fore long. She's gone to larn—she got the call, same as all her kin—it's the curse!"
Now that the wall of reserve was down the pent waters rushed through and they came on the fanciful, dramatic words peculiar to Becky and her kind. Angela did not interrupt—she waited while the old, stifled voice ran on:
"I had to larn, and I went far and saw sights, and when it was larned I cum back, with Zalie's mother rolled up like she was a bundle. The old cabin was empty 'cept for wild things as found shelter there—me and her settled down and no one found out for some time, and then it didn't matter!
"Zalie's mother, she had to larn and she went with a man as helped her larn powerful quick. He don killed my gal by his ways an' he left her to die. It was a stranger as brought Zalie to me, and then I set myself to the task of keeping her from the curse—but she got the call and she went! I can see her"—here the strange eyes looked as the eyes of a seer look—they were following the girl on the "larnin' way"; the tired voice trailed sadly—"I can see how she went. It was nearing morning and all the moonlight that the night had left was piled like mist down in the Gap. Her head was up and she had her hands out—sorter feelin', feelin', and she would laugh—oh! she would laugh—and then she'd catch the scent, and be off! Oh! my Gawd, my Gawd!"
Becky swayed back and forth and moaned softly as one does who has emptied his soul and waits.
Sister Angela got up and bent over the old woman, her thin white hand on the crouching back.
"When did this happen?" she asked.
"Mos' a year back!"
"And you have only come now to tell me? Why did you wait?"
"Twasn't no use coming before—but now, I 'low she's coming back, same as all us does, after the larnin'! I had a vision las' night—and this morning—I saw The Ship on the Rock—she'll come!"
Again the old woman's eyes were lifted and she peered into the depths of the fire.
"I seed Zalie las' night! She come with hit."
"With what?" Sister Angela had that peculiar pricking sensation of the skin caused by tense nerves.
"With hit. Her young-un! That's what larnin' means to us-all. Hit! After that, nothin' counts one way or 'other. Zalie spoke in her vision—clear like she was in the flesh. She don made me understand that I mus' give hit a chance; break the curse—there is only one way!"
"What way, Becky?" Angela was whispering as if she and the old woman near her were conspiring together.
"Hit mus' go where no one knows—no one ever can know. It's the knowin' that damns us-all. Folks knowin' an' expectin'—an' helpin' the curse. Hit's got to start fresh an' no one knowin'."
Becky's voice was sepulchral.
"You mean," Angela asked, "that if Zalie comes back with a child that you want me to take it, find a home for it—where no one will ever know?"
"You-all don promised to help me," Becky pleaded, for she caught the doubting tone in Angela's voice; "you-all ain't goin' back on that, air yo'?"
The burning eyes fell upon the cross at Angela's side.
"No," she said. "No. Becky, I promise to help you. But suppose Zalie, should she have a child, refused to give it up?"
Becky's face quivered.
"She won't las', Zalie won't." The stricken voice was as confident as if Zalie already lay dead. "Zalie ain't got stayin' powers, she ain't. She don have fever an' what-all—an' she won't las' long—she'll go on The Ship! But if you-all hide hit—so The Ship can't take hit—if you-all give hit hit's chance—then the curse will be broke."
There was pleading, renunciation, and command in the guttural voice:
"Becky, I will promise to help you. If there is a child and you renounce all claim to it, I will find a home for it. It shall have its chance. And now sit here and rest—I am going to bring some food to you."
Sister Angela arose and passed from the room. The doing of the kindly, commonplace thing restored her to her usual calm.
She was not gone long, but when she returned, bearing the tray, Becky had departed and the chair in which she had sat was still swaying.
"I brushed all obstructions from my doorsill and stepped into the road."
It was just after sunset the following day when Jed turned from the Big Road into the River Road and thanked God that the next five miles could be made before early darkness set in.
Beside him sat Meredith Thornton, white lipped and wide-eyed, and her aristocratic bags rattled around in the space behind.
The smile with which Meredith had faced her past three years lingered still on the set mouth—the smile was for Jed.
"There seem to be more downs than ups on this road," the girl said, in order to cover a groan. "It will be awful after dark."
"Dark or light, ma'am," Jed returned, "it's all the same to me, ma'am. I know dese little ole humps like I know my fingers and toes, ma'am."
"Do—do you always hit the same humps?" Jed was hitting one now, squarely.
"Mostly, ma'am; but I'm studyin' to get there before dark, ma'am. If Washington now, ma'am"—Jed indicated the sleeker of the two horses—"had the ginger, so to speak, ma'am, as Lincoln has got—why, ma'am, the River Road would be flyin' out behind, ma'am, like it war a tail of a kite."
Meredith managed to give a weak laugh and, as the wagon hit another hump, she edged toward Jed. After a few moments he felt her head against his shoulder—from suffering and exhaustion she fell into a brief and troubled sleep.
Like one carved from rock, Jed held his position while a reverent expression grew upon his face.
The glow showed yellow through the western sky, The Gap was growing purplish and dim, and just then, across a foot bridge over the river, a hurrying, bent form appeared. It swayed perilously—Jed heard a muttered curse.
"Gawd A'mighty," he breathed, "it's ole Aunt Becky come back to add to trubble after us-all hopin' she was daid—or something."
Becky was coming toward the road, bending over the bundle she bore; she paused, looked down, and then darted ahead right in the path of the horses. They reared and something snapped.
Meredith awoke and sat up with a cry.
"What is the matter?" she asked. "An accident?"
"'Tain't nothin' so bad as an accident, ma'am," Jed reassured her, "but I don't take no chances with Lincoln's hind hoofs, ma'am, an' somethin' done cracked in dat quarter."
The pause gave Aunt Becky time to reach Ridge House and play her part in the scheme of things.
Panting and well nigh exhausted, the old woman staggered on and was thankful to see at her journey's end that but one light shone in the quiet house. The light was in the living room where Angela sat alone waiting for Meredith Thornton. She had quite forgotten, in her growingly anxious hours, all about poor Becky and her sorrows. So now, when the long window, opening on the west porch, swayed inward, she started up with outstretched arms—and confronted Becky.
"I've brung hit!" Becky staggered to a chair, uninvited, and sat down with her burden, wrapped in a dirty, old quilt, upon her knees.
Angela sat down also—she was speechless and frightened. She watched the old woman unfold the coverings, and she saw the form of a sleeping new-born baby exposed to the heat and light of the fire. She tried to say something, to get control of herself, but she only succeeded in bending nearer the apparition.
"Zalie she cum las' night like I told you she would. She's daid now—Zalie is. I don buried her at sun-up—an' I want it tole—if it ever is tole—that the child was buried long o' Zalie. She done planned while she was a-dying.
"I told her what you-all promised an' she went real content-like after that."
There was sodden despair in Becky's voice.
"Who—is the father of this child?"
The commonplace question, under the strain, sounded trivial—but it was rung from Angela's dismay.
Becky gave a rough laugh.
"Not the agony o' death an' the fear o' hell could wring that out of Zalie," she said. Then: "Yo' ain't goin' back on yo' promise, are yo'?"
Sister Angela rallied. At any moment the wheels on the road might end her time for considering poor Becky.
"You mean," she whispered, "that you renounce—this child; give it to me, now? You mean—that I must find a home for it?"
"Yo' done promised—an' it eased Zalie at the end."
Angela reached for the child—she was calm and self-possessed at last. This was not the first child she had rescued.
"It is—a girl?" she asked, lifting the tiny form.
"Hit's a girl. Give hit a chance."
"I will." Then Angela wrapped the child in the old quilt and turned toward the door.
"Will you wait until I return?" she paused to ask, but Becky, her eyes on that picture of the Good Shepherd, replied:
"No—I don let go!"
With that she passed as noiselessly from the room as if she were but a shadow sinking into the darkness outside.
Angela went upstairs and knocked at Sister Constance's door. Sister Constance was alert at once. Every faculty of hers was trained to respond intelligently to taps on the door in the middle of the night.
"This is—a child—a mountain child," whispered Sister Angela. "It has been left here. Take it into the west wing and tell no one of its presence until we know whether it will be claimed!"
"Very well, Sister." Constance folded the child to her ample breast; the maternal in her gave the training she had received a divine quality. The baby stirred, stretched out its little limbs, and opened its vague, sleep-filled eyes as if at last something worthy of response had appealed to it.
Sister Angela stood in the cold, dark hall listening, and when the door of the west wing chamber closed, she felt, once more, secure. Sister Angela was never able to describe afterward the state of mind that made the happenings of the next few hours seem like flaming pillars against a dead blur of sensation.
There was the sound of wheels. That set every nerve tense.
Meredith was in her arms—clinging, sobbing, and repeating:
"He must never have my child, Sister. Promise, promise!"
"I promise, my darling. I promise." Angela heard herself saying the words as if they proceeded from the lips of a stranger.
"Has Doris come?"
"Not yet. She will be here soon."
"I can trust you and Doris. Doris knows. And now—I let go!"
Where had Sister Angela heard those words before? They went whirling through her brain as if on a mighty wheel.
"I have—let go!"
Then followed terrible hours in the guest chamber with Sister Constance repeating over and over: "It is a perfectly plain case. All is well."
Finally, there was quiet, and then that cry that has power to move the world's heart, a plaintive wail weighted with relinquishment and—acceptance. Meredith's little daughter was born just as the clock below chimed four.
"I will take it to the west wing," Constance said. "Call me if you need me."
But everything seemed settling into calm, and Meredith fell asleep looking as she used to look in the old days before she had been forced outside the gates. At daylight she opened her eyes.
"Is it morning?" she asked of Sister Angela who sat beside her.
"Yes, dear heart."
"Raise the shade, Sister." Then, as Angela raised it—"Why, how strange! What is that, Sister?"
Angela looked and saw The Ship! In that hour when vitality runs low and with the past horrors of the night still holding her, all the superstition of The Gap claimed her.
"I—I was afraid I would lose the ship." Meredith's mind wandered back to her hurried home-leaving; the dread that the ship that was to bear her from the Philippines might have gone. The mystic Ship upon The Rock was all that was needed to fix her fancy.
"But—I was in time. I am in time. The Ship—is waiting. Everything is all right now!—quite all right, Sister?"
Angela went close to the bed.
"My dear one!" she whispered and slipped her arm under Meredith's head.
"It all seems so—plain in the morning, Sister. It is the night that makes us afraid. The night! I cannot remember—what it was—I dreamed."
"Never mind, little girl"—Angela's tears were dropping on the soft, smooth hair that was growing clammy; she felt the cold breath on her face—"never mind, little girl, the dream is past."
"Sister, it was a bad dream. I do not like bad dreams—tell Doris—what is it that I want you to tell Doris?"
"Try to sleep, beloved." Angela knelt.
Meredith slipped back to her childhood—she gave a short, hurting laugh. "Tell her—tell Doris—I did try to learn my lesson—but——"
It was the opening of the door that startled Angela into consciousness. Doris Fletcher stood within the room. Her eyes took in the scene, the pretty face against Sister Angela's bosom; the sunlight lying full across the bed and picking out into a gleam the golden cross that hung to the floor.
Agony rang in the quiet words.
"And I've travelled day and night! Her letter was forwarded to me."
The letter burned against Doris's bosom like a tangible thing. She crossed the room and sank beside the bed.
They all slipped through the following days as people do who realize that troubles do not come to them, but are overtaken on the way. They seemed always to have been there; some people pass on the other side, but if one's path lies close, then one must go with what courage possible—look hard, feel and groan with the understanding, and pass on as best he can bearing the memory with him.
Father Noble came from many miles back in the hills. Riding his sturdy little horse, his loose black cloak floating like benignant wings bearing him on; his radiant old face shining even in the face of death.
He stayed until the wound in the hillside was covered over Meredith's little form; stayed to see the flowers hide the scar, murmuring again and again: "In the hope of joyful resurrection." His was the task to bridge life and death, and there was no doubt in his beautiful soul.
"And now," he said, after four days, "I must go to Cleaver's Clearing"—the Clearing was twenty hard miles away. "There are children there who never heard of God until I took some toys to them last Christmas. Then they thought that I was God. They are sick now, poor children—bad food; no care—ah! well, they will learn, they will learn."
And the old man rode away.
And still Doris had not seen Meredith's child.
"I cannot, Sister," she had pleaded. "I can think of it only as George Thornton's child."
The hate in Doris's heart was so new and appalling a sensation that it frightened her.
She tried to think of the unseen child with the love that she felt for all children—but that one! She struggled to overcome the sickening aversion that grew, instead of lessened, while the days dragged on. But always the helpless child represented nothing but passion, brutality, suffering, and disgrace. It was not a child, a piteous, pleading child—it was the essence of Wrong made visible.
Sister Angela was deeply concerned. The unnatural attitude called forth her old manner of authority. Sitting alone with Doris before the fire in the living room the evening of Meredith's funeral and Father Noble's departure she grew stern and commanding.
"This will never do, my dear," she said. "It cannot be that life has made of you a cruel, unjust woman."
Doris dropped her eyes—they were wonderful eyes, her real and only claim to beauty. Dusky eyes they were, with a light in them of amber.
"How much did Merry tell you?" she asked, faintly, for the older woman looked so frail and pure that it seemed impossible that she knew the worst.
"My dear, she told me—nothing. Her letter said that she wanted to tell me things—things that she could not tell to God"—Angela unconsciously touched her cross—"but there was no time. No time."
"There are things that women cannot tell to God, Sister. Things that they can only tell to some women!"
A bitterness that she could not control shook Doris's voice. She shrank from touching the exquisite detachment of Sister Angela by the truth, and yet she must have as much sympathy as possible and, certainly, cooeperation.
"Sister, this child should never have been born!"
The words reached where former words had failed. A flush touched Angela's white face—it was like sunrise on snow. Then, after a pause:
"Did—Meredith—think that?" A growing sternness gave Doris hope that she might be saved the details that were like poison in her blood.
"Yes. Protected by—by what is law—George Thornton——"
But Angela raised her thin, transparent hand commandingly. It was as if she were staying the torrents of wrong and shame that threatened to deluge all that she had gained by her life of renunciation and repression—and yet in her clear eyes there gleamed the understanding of the depths.
"May God have mercy upon—the child!" was what she said, and by those words she took her stand between past wrong and hope of future justice. "You must take this child, Doris," she said. "All that you know and feel but make the course imperative and inevitable."
"Sister, how can I—feeling as I do?"
"Can you afford not to? Can you leave it—to such a man?"
"But, Sister, you do not know him. If I should conquer my aversion and take the child, if I succeeded in loving it—he would bide his time and claim it. The law that made this horrible thing possible covers his claim to the child."
Angela drooped back in her chair. She looked old and beaten.
"He must not have the child," she murmured. "It's the only chance for the salvation of Meredith's little girl. He shall not have it!"
Doris bent toward the fire holding her cold, clasped hands to the heat. Suddenly she turned.
"I am growing nervous," she said, "I thought I heard someone pressing against the window—I thought I saw—a shadow drift outside in the moonlight."
Angela started and sat upright. Every sense was alert—she was remembering her promise to old Becky!
"I wish," she said, haltingly, "I wish I had consulted Father Noble. I have undertaken too much."
"Consulted him about what, Sister?" Doris was touched by the quivering voice and strained eyes; she set her own trouble aside.
Again that pressing sound, and the wind swirling the dead leaves against the house.
"About a little deserted mountain child upstairs. I have promised to find a home for it, but I cannot manage such things any more—I am too old."
The words came plaintively, as if defending against implied neglect.
Doris's eyes grew deep and concerned.
"A deserted child?" she repeated. In the feverish haste and trouble of the past few days the ordinary life of Ridge House had held no part. It seemed to be claiming its rights now, pushing her aside.
Then Sister Angela, her tired face set toward the long window whence came that pressing sound and the swish of the wind, told Becky's story. She told it as she might if Becky were listening, ready at any lapse to correct her, but she carefully refrained from mentioning names.
It eased her mind to turn from Doris's trouble to poor Becky's, and she saw with relief that Doris was listening; was interested.
"It is strange," Sister Angela mused, when the bare telling of the story was over, "how the deep, cruel things in life are met by people in much the same way—the ignorant and the wise, when they touch the inscrutable they let go and turn to a higher power than their own. Meredith felt that her child's chance in life lay in a new and fresh start. The mountain woman's curse, as she termed it, could only be conquered, so she pleaded, by giving her grandchild to those who did not know. It amounts to the same thing.
"Meredith is—gone; the old woman of the hills cannot last long. I wonder, as to the children—I wonder!"
Doris's eyes were burning and her voice shook when she spoke. Her words and tone startled Angela.
"Where is the—the mountain child?" she asked.
"Upstairs, my dear. Why, Doris, you are shaking as if you had a chill. You are ill—let me call Sister Constance."
But Doris stayed her as she rose.
"No, no, Sister. I am only trembling because my feet are set on a possible way! I am—I am pushing things aside. Tell me, is this child a girl?"
"How old is it?"
"It was born the night before Meredith's child. It survived against grave dangers—it had no care, really, for twenty-four hours."
"You—you think it will live?"
"Do you think—the grandmother will ever reclaim it?"
"No, my dear. She is very old. I do not know how old, but certainly she cannot last much longer. She is a strange creature, but I am confident she realizes all that she said."
"And she is right—it is the only way." Doris was now speaking more to herself than to Angela. It was as if she were arguing, seeking to convince her conservative self before she stepped out upon a new and perilous path.
"No one knowing! Then the start could be new. It is the knowing, expecting, and suggesting that do the harm. We may call it inheritance, but it may be that we evolve from our knowledge and fears the very thing we would avert if we were left free."
Sister Angela bent forward. She whispered as if she felt the necessity of secrecy.
"What do you mean?"
"Sister, can you not see? Suppose it were possible for me to take Merry's child without the knowledge of its inheritance from the father. Suppose this little mountain child were given its chance among people who did not know."
"The children would reveal themselves, my dear." Angela was defending, she knew not what, but all her nature was up in arms. "It is God's way."
"Or our bungling and lack of faith, Sister, which?"
All the weariness and hopelessness passed from Doris's face; she was eager, her eyes shone. Presently she stood up, her back to the fire, her glance on that far window that opened to the starry night and the narrow, flower-hidden bed on the hill.
"Sister Angela," the words were spoken solemnly as a vow might be taken before God, "I am going to take—both children. But on one condition—I am not to know which is Meredith's."
A log rolling from the irons startled the women—their nerves were strained to the breaking point.
"Impossible!" gasped Angela.
"Your own has claims upon you!"
"None that I am not willing to give—but this is the only way. If, as you say, it is God's way that they reveal themselves, then I lose; if God is with me, I win."
Doris stretched her arms as if pushing aside every obstacle.
"I do," she said. "I am not a daring woman: I am a weak and fearful one—this, though, I dare!"
"But the father——" Angela whispered.
"The—father——" Doris's eyes flamed.
"But he may, as you say, claim the child." Angela hastened breathlessly as one running.
"How could he, if I did not know which child was his?"
The blinding light began to point the way clearer, now, to the older woman.
"It's—unheard of," she murmured, "and yet——"
"I will write to Thornton, offer to take his child," Doris was pleading, rather than explaining. "I think at the first he will agree to the proposal—what else can he do? The shock—remember, he does not even know that a child is expected! Dare we refuse Meredith's child this only and desperate chance—knowing what we do?"
Angela made no reply. She was letting go one after another of her rigid beliefs. Again Doris spoke, again she pleaded:
"I will abide by your decision, Sister, but only after you have gone to the chapel—and seen the way. I will wait here."
Angela rose stiffly, holding to her cross as if it were a physical support. With bowed head she passed from the room and Doris sat down thinking; demanding justice.
A half hour passed before steps were heard in the hall. Doris stood up, her eyes fixed on the door.
Sister Angela entered, and in her arms, wrapped in the same blanket, were two sleeping babies wearing the plain clothing that Ridge House kept in store for emergencies. Doris ran forward; she bent over the small creatures.
"Which?" Nature leaped forth in that one palpitating word—it was the last claim of blood.
"I—forgot—when I brought them to you. We have all—forgot. It is the only way—the chance."
Doris took both children in her arms.
"I shall name them Joan and Nancy," she whispered, "for my mother and grandmother. Joan and Nancy—Thornton!"
Then she kissed them, and it was given to her at that moment to forget her bitter hatred.
"Just as much of doubt as bade us plant a surer foot upon the sun-road."
Doris Fletcher had no turning-back in her nature. She never reached a goal but by patient effort to understand, and she was able to close her eyes to by-paths.
Having adopted the children, having foregone her prejudices—good and evil—having set her feet upon the way, she meant to go unfalteringly on, and because doubts would assail her at times, she held the surer to her task.
She remained a month at Ridge House. She wrote to Thornton and in due time his reply came.
Apparently he had written while bewildered and shocked. The old arrogant tone was gone. He accepted what Doris offered and set aside a generous sum of money for his child's expenses.
It was Sister Angela's suggestion that Mary should become the nurse for the children.
"How much does she know, Sister?"
"Nothing—but what we have permitted her to know. The girl, since knowing of the children, has astonished me by her interest in them. Nothing before has so brought her out of her native reserve. I never suspected it—but the girl has maternal instincts that should not be starved."
But Sister Angela was mistaken. Mary knew more than she had been permitted to know.
A closed door to Mary meant seeking access through other channels. Sister Constance had not screened the windows of the west chamber which opened on the roof of the porch and were next to the window of Mary's small chamber. She had forgotten to ward against the startling sound of a baby's cry. But Mary, the night that Becky had left her burden to the care of Sister Angela, had heard that cry and it reached to the hidden depth of the girl's nature. It chilled her, then set her blood racing hotly. She got up and went to the window—it was moonlight in The Gap and the night was full of a rising wind that rattled the vines and set the leaves swirling.
Covering herself with a dark shawl, she crept from her window and, clinging close to the house, reached the west chamber.
Inside, by the light of a candle, Sister Constance sat, hushing to sleep a little child! The sight was burned upon Mary's consciousness as if Fate pressed every detail there so it might not be forgotten. Mary saw the small, puckered face. It was individual and distinct.
She almost slipped from her place on the roof; her breath came so hard that she feared Sister Constance might hear, and she groped her way back.
All next day Mary worked silently but with such haste that Sister Janice took her sharply to task.
"'Tis the ungodly as leaves the dust under the mats, child," she cautioned.
"Yes, Sister." Mary attacked the mats!
"And a burnt loaf cries for forgiveness."
"Yes, Sister, but the burnt loaf I will myself eat to the last crust."
"Indeed and you shall—for the carelessness that you show."
Somehow Mary lived through the day with her ears strained and a mighty fear in her heart.
It was nearing morning of the following day—that darkest hour—when the girl arose from her sleepless bed and stole forth again.
It was just then that Sister Constance, her face distorted by grief and the play of candlelight upon it, entered the west chamber with a baby in her arms!
Mary gripped the shutters—she felt faint and weak. Suppose she should slip and fall?
And then she saw two children on the bed and Sister Constance—bent in prayer—her cross pressed to her lips.
All this Mary had seen, but when Sister Angela asked her if she would like to go with Miss Fletcher and care for the children, so great was her curiosity that she, mentally, tore her roots from her home hills; let go her clinging to the deserted cabin where she had been born, and almost eagerly replied: "I'd like it powerful."
So Mary took her place.
Doris Fletcher had her plans well laid.
"I must have myself well in hand," she said to Sister Angela, "before I go to New York. There's the little bungalow in California where father took mother before Merry's birth. It happens to be vacant. I will go there and work out my plans."
It seemed a simple solution. The children throve from the start in the sunshine and climate; the peace and detachment acted like charms, and Mary, stifling her soul's homesickness, grew stern as to face, but marvellously tender and capable in her duties. Doris grew accustomed to her silence and reserve after a time, but she never understood Mary, although she grew to depend upon her absolutely. To friends in New York, especially to Doctor David Martin, Doris wrote often. She was never quite sure how the impression was given that Meredith had left twins; certainly she had not said that, but she had spoken of "the children" without laying stress upon the statement, and while debating just what explanation she would make. After all, it was her own affair. Some day she would confide in David, but there were more important details to claim her attention.
The babies were adorable, but in neither could she trace an expression or suggestion of Meredith. Their childish characteristics gave no clue—they were simply healthy, normal creatures full of the charm that all childhood should have in common. And gradually, as time passed, Doris lost herself in their demanding individualities; she became absorbed. Joan was larger, stronger, seemed older. She had brown eyes of that sunny tint which suggest sunshine. Her hair was brown, almost from the first, with gold glints. She was fair, had little colour unless the warm glow that rose and fell so sweetly in her face could be called colour. Excitement brought the flush, disappointment or a chiding word banished it. At other times Joan had the warm, ivory-tinted skin of health, not delicacy. Nancy was, from the first, frankly blonde. She never changed from the lovely, fair promise of her first year. She was the most feminine creature one could imagine; a doll brought the light to her violet eyes.
"She takes that rather than her milk," Mary explained, then gravely: "She'll take her milk if I hold off the doll."
Nature was never quite sure what to do with Joan. She changed with the years in tint, colouring, and character, but Nancy was fair, fine, and delicately poised from her baby days.
Both children worshipped Doris—Auntie Dorrie, they were taught to call her—and it was amusing to watch their relations to her. To please her, to win her approval, were their highest hopes. Mary clearly preferred Nancy and, for that reason, gave more attention to Joan.
When the children were nearly two Doris wrote to David Martin:
"I am coming home. I am glad that I have always kept the house in commission; I feel that I can trust myself there now."
And so the little family travelled east. Mary in trim uniform (and how she silently hated it) of black, with immaculate cuffs, collars, and cap; the babies perfect in every way and Doris, herself, happier than she had ever been in her life—handsomer, too. Her life had developed normally around the children; she felt a wide and deep interest in everything, and always the sense of high adventure, a daring in her relations to the future.
The old Fletcher house set the standard for the others down the long row. It was brick, with heavy oak, brass-bound doors. The marble steps and white trim were spotless and glistening and behind it lay a deep yard hidden by a tall brick wall. The house had reserved, as the family had, the right, once its civic duty was performed, to develop inwardly along its own lines.
The three generations, in turn, had set their marks upon it. The first Fletcher had been a genial soul given to entertaining, and the dining room, back of the drawing room, gave evidence of the old gentleman's taste. It was a stately and beautiful room and each article of furniture had been made to fit into the space and the need by an artist.
Doris's father was not indifferent to his father's tastes, but he was a student at heart and had a vision as to libraries. He encroached upon the ample space back of the house and had built an oval room through whose leaded panes the peach and plum trees could be seen like traceries on the clear glass. Around the walls of this room the book shelves ranged at just the right height, and above them hung pictures that inspired but did not obtrude. The high, carved chimney with its deep, generous hearth was a benediction.
When Doris had come home from St. Mary's she made known a family trait—she voiced what to her seemed an inspiration but which to the father, at first, seemed madness. Still, he complied and spent many happy hours before his death in what he called "Doris's Daring."
"I want the west wall of the library knocked out, Father," she had said, but Mr. Fletcher only stared.
"We can have the books and pictures in my room—my sunken room. There is enough garden to spare and we can save the roses. We'll drop down from the library by a shallow flight of steps; we'll have a little fountain and about a mile of nice low window seats rambling around the room. I don't want nymphs in the fountain but dear, adorable children tossing water at each other.
"We must have birds in cages, and plants and pictures—it must be a room where we can all take what is dearest to us—and live."
Of course it was an expensive and daring conception, but it was carried out by an inspired young architect, and it was Meredith who had posed for the figures in the fountain.
When Doris returned to New York with her children this room became the soul of the house.
The year after Doris's adoption of the children Sister Angela died suddenly. "She simply fell asleep," Sister Constance wrote.
After that the other Sisters could not feel happy and content in the atmosphere of antagonism that Sister Angela had partially overcome, but with which they had no sympathy. They returned to the Middle West and entered a Sisterhood where their duties and environment were more congenial. Ridge House reverted to the Fletcher estate and Uncle Jed was put in charge.
"I may use it later," Doris explained, "or I may turn it over to Father Noble if he ever needs it."
What this all meant to Mary no one ever knew—she saw, now, no return to her hills, and her longing for them grew as the years passed, and her curiosity flattened in the dull round of duties and commonplace routine. Only one emotion largely controlled her thought and that was a dumb gratitude for what she believed she was receiving. She could not agree that her devoted service gave ample return. She was under obligation, and the feeling was blighting to the girl's independence. Work, the necessity for work, was an accepted state of mind to poor Mary. The luxury and consideration that were hers in her present life took from labour, as far as she mentally considered it, all the essential qualities that gave her independence. She was accepting—so she reflected in that proud detached logic of the hills—from outsiders what no mere bodily labour could repay, certainly not such service as she was giving. Just loving and caring for two little children!
With cautious and suspicious watchfulness through the years Mary regarded Doris Fletcher still as "foreign." Foreign to all that was born and bred in the girl's inheritance of mountain aristocracy, but she had been touched by the justice, the unerring kindness of the woman, who, to Mary's wrong ideals, gave and gave and constantly made it impossible for her to make return.
"Some day," the girl vowed, when her manner was most grim and repelling, "some day I'll do something to pay back!" And then she grew bewildered in the maze of wondering if the "quality" so precious to her understanding might not exist in all places? Might it not be?—but here Mary became lost.
When she recalled, as less and less she did, the unlawful spying of hers on the west chamber of Ridge House, she set her lips in a firm line. She had gone far enough on her upward way to detest the cringing, deceitful methods of her childhood and she sternly sought to right herself, with her burdening conscience, by putting away forever what possible significance lay in the strange coming of that first and second child to Ridge House.
"Were they twins? Were—they?" But Mary always was frightened when she got into her mental depths.
Three or four vital and significant events marked the years intervening between Doris's return to New York and the day when Joan and Nancy entered womanhood.
The first incident seemed slight in itself but proved the truth of the need for caution when one is on a blind trail. With all her good intentions and high hopes Doris was bewildered as to her steps. She who had been the soul of frankness and cheerful friendliness was now reticent and reserved.
"It is poor Meredith's business," friend after friend decided. Where little was known, much was suspected. "The Fletchers cannot easily brook that sort of thing."
Just what that "sort" was depended upon the temperament and character of the person speaking.
Then among the first to call after Doris's return was Mrs. Tweksbury, an old and valued family friend, a woman who was worth one's while to gain as friend, for she could be a desperate foe. She had formed all her opinions of Meredith Thornton's tragedy upon what she knew and loved concerning the girl, and what she knew nothing whatever about, concerning Thornton.
To Mrs. Tweksbury he was a black villain who had murdered—there was no other word for it—an innocent young creature who belonged to that class (Mrs. Tweksbury was frank and clear about "class") not supposed to be subject to the coarser dealings of life.
Mrs. Tweksbury relied absolutely upon what she termed her inherited intuition. This was quite outside feminine intuition. The Tweksbury male intellect had been judicial from the first, and "the constant necessity of knowing men and women," as Mrs. Tweksbury often explained, "had left its mark upon the family."
"We know! That is all there is to say. We know!"
So Mrs. Tweksbury "knew" all about everything when she folded Doris in her motherly arms.
"There is no need of a word, my dear," she said, "and you are dealing with the whole thing superbly. Let me see the children. How fortunate that they are twins and girls! Girls may inherit from the father, but thank God! nature saves them from the developing along his line. And being twins certainly modifies what might otherwise be concentrated."
Doris felt her heart beat fast. She was not prepared to confide in Mrs. Tweksbury, certainly not at present. She loved the old woman for her good qualities, but she shrank from putting herself at the mercy of Mrs. Tweksbury's "inherited intuitions!"
So she said nothing, but sent for the children.
Hidden deep in the old woman's heart were all the denied and suppressed yearnings of a love that had escaped fulfilment—a love that had entered in after her marriage to a man utterly without sympathy with her, but which had been rigidly ignored because of the stern moral fibre that marked her. After the death of all those who had been concerned in her secret romance she had taken upon herself the more or less vicarious guardianship of the son of the man she had loved and foregone.
The boy lived with his mother's people, and Mrs. Tweksbury only visited him occasionally; but her proud, stern old heart knew only one undying passion now—her passion for children.
When Nancy and Joan stood before her, she regarded them with almost tragic, and, at the same time, comic expression. The children were frightened at her twitching, wrinkled face and glanced at Doris, who smiled them into calmness.
In Joan, Mrs. Tweksbury saw resemblance to no one she remembered, so she concluded she must be like the father, physically, whom they must all ignore absolutely. Try as she valiantly did, the old lady felt her quick-beating heart falter before Joan's earnest, searching gaze. It was a relief to turn to Nancy and permit her eyes to dim and soften.
"My dear, my dear," she said to Doris, "how like dear Merry the baby is! Just so, I recall—"
Doris's face grew strained and ashy. "Please," she implored, "please, Aunt Emily—don't!"
"Of course, of course, my child. Very indiscreet of me—but I was taken off my guard." Then—"My dears, will you kiss me?" This to the children keeping their courage up by clinging together.
"No," Joan replied in a tone entirely free from bad manners but weighted with simple truth; "Joan likes to kiss Auntie Dorrie." The inference stiffened Mrs. Tweksbury and caused Doris a qualm.
"And you?" The old lady's tone was pathetic in its appeal to Nancy—her "intuition" was at stake.
Nancy drew nearer. She was fascinated, afraid, but guided by a strange impulse. "Nancy will," she panted, "Nancy will kiss you—two times!"
Mrs. Tweksbury's breath caught in her throat—she strangled but controlled herself and bent as a queen might to the sweet uplifted face at her knee.
After that visit Doris would have had a difficult task in stemming a flood that Mrs. Tweksbury directed, having removed the dam. While she fairly grovelled, emotionally, before Nancy, the old lady defended Joan by stern insistence upon traits of nobility unsuspected by others in the child.
"The wretch of a father," she mentally vowed, "shall not have the child if suggestion can prevent."
Spiritually she fell in line with Doris, and where Mrs. Tweksbury led it were wiser and easier to follow than to blaze new trails.
The second event that marked a new epoch was the coming of George Thornton to claim his own.
"And when it fails, fight as we will, we die."
George Thornton was a man who believed, or thought he did, in two controlling things in life: Intellect, and the training of intellect, by education and stern attention, to the task at stake.
He had intellect and he had devoted himself to his task, that of worldly success, but he had never recognized nor admitted the necessity of the spiritual in his development, and so it had failed him—and, in a deep, tragic way, he was dying. Had been dying through the years since his devil took the reins, in a mad hour, and rode him.
There had been weeks and months after his leaving Meredith when his soul cried aloud to him but was smothered. He would not heed. He let business and coarse, pleasurable excitement gain power over him, and when they lagged he drank his conscience to sleep.
He knew the danger which lay in the last aid to deaden his pain, so he rarely sought it.
But something new had entered in—something that, in hours when he was obliged to face facts, frightened him, and after months abroad, months in which he nursed his resentment against Meredith and felt his defeat with her, he decided to do the only decent thing left for him to do—apologize and set her free.
And then he found her note. The bald, naked statement drove all power to act for the moment from him. Close upon that shock, which he smilingly covered, by explaining on very commonplace grounds, came Doris's letter. The purest elements and the most brutal in many natures lie close. They did in Thornton. Had Meredith been a wiser, a more human and loving woman, she might have helped Thornton to his full stature; but failing him by her helpless insufficiency, she drove him to his shoals.
Had she by the turn of Fortune been obliged, as many women are, to have borne her lot though her heart broke her child might have saved her and the man also—for Thornton had the paternal instincts, though they were unsuspected and wholly dormant.
Again Meredith had defeated him. What could he do with a helpless baby on his hands? What else was there to do but accept Doris's offer? And of course the child was dead to him except by the cold, legal tie that bound them together. That, Thornton grimly held to.
He would press it, too, in his good time!
But Thornton's next few years proved to be a succession of mis-steps with the inevitable results.
He married the woman who could, when she had no actual hold on him, soothe and comfort—not because of his need, but her own. Once, however, she was placed in a secure position, she cast any need of his aside and developed myriads of her own.
If Thornton could not force a social position for her, then he must pay for the luxury of her exile with him. Thornton paid and paid until every faculty he had was strained to the snapping point. Finally he resorted to the last and most dangerous aid he had at his disposal—he drank more than ever before; but even in his extremity he recognized his danger and always caught himself before the worst overcame him.
Business began to show the effect of private troubles, and then Thornton remembered the Fletcher fortune; his child, and the possibilities of making the child a link between money and a growing necessity.
Whatever natural tie there might have been in Thornton's relations with his child had perished. There was merely a legal one now.
And Thornton, having explained this at great length to his wife, and finally getting her to agree to assume a responsibility that he swore should never embarrass her, travelled to New York.
It was a bright, sunny June day when he rang the bell of the Fletcher home and was admitted, by a trim maid, to the small reception room that was a noncommittal link between the hall and the drawing room.
Sitting alone in the quiet place, Thornton was conscious of a silvery drip, drip of water. Sound, like smell, has a power to arouse memory and control it. Thornton's thoughts flew back to the week he had spent in this old house with his girl wife. He recalled the sunken room and the fountain with those wonderful figures modelled after Meredith.
Without taking into account the years and happenings that had made him more than a stranger to the family he got up and followed a haunting desire to see the room and the fountain again.
He passed through the drawing room and shrugged his shoulders. It was arrogant, self-assured—he hated that sort of thing. The dining room was better—a fine idea as to colour and furniture; the library, too—Thornton paused and took a comprehensive glance. He liked the library, and the fireplace was perfect. He made a mental note. Then he stepped down into the room with its memory-haunting fountain. He had never seen it in action before, and so clever was the conceit that he drew back, fearing that the tossing sprays would reach him. Then he sat down in a deep chair, crossed his legs, smiled, and looked about.
Here it was that Doris spent much of her time indoors. The window was open and a rose vine was clinging to the frame, rich in bloom. There was a work basket on the low, velvet-cushioned seat—a child's sock lay near it and several ridiculous toys, rigidly propped against the wall, as if on review. Birds sang outside in the plum and peach trees and birds inside, not realizing their bondage, answered merrily—the room was throbbing with life and joy and hope. Thornton smiled, not a pleasant smile, and felt more important than he had felt in many a day; more powerful, too.
"Doris must be over thirty," he mused, "and not of the marrying type. There must be a pretty big pile to back all this." He got quickly to his feet, for Doris appeared just then at the doorway leading to the library. She paused at the top of the stairs—there was a strip of green velvet carpet running down the middle of the marble steps; her white gown came just to her ankles, and the narrow white-shod feet sank lightly into the green carpet as if it were moss.
"I am glad to see that you have made yourself comfortable, George," she said, and smiled her very finest smile. There was no hint of reproof in the tone, but Thornton instantly wondered if it would not have been wiser to have kept to the reception room.
"I hope I have not intruded," he went to the steps and held out his hand, "it is home, you know, after all."
This was meant to be conciliatory, but the appeal went astray.
"Let us sit by the window," Doris remarked, "the air is delightful to-day."
And then came the pause during which the path leading to an understanding must be chosen. Doris left the choosing to Thornton. He took the wrong one.
"It brings so much back," he half whispered, "so much!" He was a fairly good actor, but Doris was not appreciative.
"So much that had better be left where it rests," she said. "I have learned that the present needs every energy—the past can take care of itself."
"You have had the real burden." Thornton meant to be magnanimous. "I shall always be grateful for your splendid help at a time when so much was at stake. Your goodness to my child——" For a moment Thornton could not think whether the child was a girl or a boy. He was confused and a bit alarmed.
Doris came to his assistance.
"Meredith's little girl was all that made the first bitter year possible for me. I have done my best, George, my happiest best—she is lovely; the most joyous thing you can imagine. Remembering how much Meredith and I needed each other, I adopted a child at the same time I undertook the care of your baby—the two are inseparable and wonderfully congenial."